Book Review: The Box

As a kid something about the Millenium Falcon always bothered me. See, everybody knows that cargo travels around the world, and presumably around the galaxy, in containers. You know, the big steel boxes that you see on TV where murders and drug deals are always happening. If Han Solo's ship is supposedly some awesome super duper fast freighter, where do the containers go? I guess on some level the fact that Solo was a smuggler sort of registered, but still you'd think that the tea and stuff (that's what smugglers move according to the school history books) would just be hidden in the containers.

After reading The Box) by Marc Levinson I'm relatively certain the Falcon would be considered a breakbulk tramp freighter. "Breakbulk" meaning traditional non-containerized freight, "tramp" for the fact that Han and Chewie are tramps. Well, and they travel around without a fixed schedule or ports of call, picking up freight wherever and whenever they can. But mostly because they're tramps.

History Lessons

The Box presents a comprehensive history of the shipping container and of shipping in general, from the days of sailing ships, gallantly making their way from India to Britain for the tea trade, all the way to modern day when huge container ships carrying over fifteen thousand twenty foot long standard containers ply the seas between Asia and Europe.

One of the most interesting sections of the book for me was the exhaustive description of how, exactly, a breakbulk freighter is cramed to the gills with individual items of every imaginable description. It turns out that longshoreman (people who work the docks and load the ships) used to have to know a lot of details of how to pack a ship and what things can be crammed where in order to maximize the limited amount of storage capacity.

The Container

Malcom McLean’s fundamental insight, commonplace today but quite radical in the 1950s, was that the shipping industry’s business was moving cargo, not sailing ships.

The origin of the standardized international shipping container is almost, but not entirely, the story of a man named Malcom McLean. Before McLean containers had been tried on and off for decades, both in the United States and in Europe, on trucks and rails and ships. There had never been dedicated through-service, though, where a container could be packed at the shipper's factory and arrive at the destination without ever being opened.

A 25-ton container of coffeemakers can leave a factory in Malaysia, be loaded aboard a ship, and cover the 9,000 miles to Los Angeles in 16 days. A day later, the container is on a unit train to Chicago, where it is transferred immediately to a truck headed for Cincinnati. The 11,000-mile trip from the factory gate to the Ohio warehouse can take as little as 22 days, a rate of 500 miles per day, at a cost lower than that of a single first-class air ticket. More than likely, no one has touched the contents, or even opened the container, along the way

The road to the standard intermodal container took quote a few twists and turns, however. Every shipper had their own standard at first, none of them compatible with each other. Eventually a committee convened by the ISO decided on dimensions and shippers slowly adopted them. The advent of the giant containerships in the 70's and 80's spelled the end of the non-standard container sizes. Originally there were two sizes, both 8 feet 6 inches high and 8 feet wide, one being 20 feet long and the other 40 feet long. Eventually a few more sizes were added, but the core standards were still the same. The key innovation that standardization added was the method by which containers are connected together to form stacks on ships, the twistlock.

One thing I was astounded by was just how fast the container changed the shipping industry. Over the course of fifty years, containerization eliminated thousands of jobs worldwide, eliminated entire ports while creating new ones where there was just a tiny dock. It opened up entire countries to new forms of trade and ruined the economies of others. The Box tells this whole compelling story, really a story of unintended consequenses. Kind of like how Han Solo went from being a tramp to a general in a galaxy-spanning republic.

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